Slow the spread: Why social media companies must act to prevent propaganda from going viral



Twitter and Facebook made a decision on Wednesday to limit the spread of propaganda on their platforms, and it has sent pro-Trump conservatives into a frenzy, accusing the platforms of 'censorship' and calling on the Department of Justice to investigate big tech.

The particular piece of propaganda of concern here is a New York Post report of unsubstantiated and possibly forged email exchange that the paper obtained through Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon, a white nationalist leader and former Trump advisor with criminal charges of fraud pending against him. The correspondence purportedly show that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's sole surviving son, set up a meeting between an executive at an Ukrainian company on whose board he served and Joe Biden, then the Vice President. The Biden campaign immediately cited the Vice President's schedule to show that no such meeting took place. Multiple Republican investigations into the Bidens have found nothing.

Donald Trump got himself impeached over trying to extort Ukraine into falsely accusing Joe Biden of corruption, but he and his allies never gave up on the trail of lies.

Rudy Giuliani - whom Joe Biden made the butt of all jokes when he reduced Rudy's 2008 presidential campaign to 'noun, verb, and 9/11' - has been especially desperate to turn up, or manufacture out of thin air, something - anything - to implicate Biden in a scheme. But instead, it was Giuliani's associates who tried to manufacture dirt against Biden on Giuliani's behalf got picked up by the FBI.

In the middle of Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate, the New York Times reported that Russian military spies had hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian company in question, Joe Biden's sole surviving son, had once served, in an attack closely resembling the Kremlin's hacking of DNC and Hillary Clinton emails in 2016. A particular concern of American intelligence officials? Russia could release forged emails in order to falsely tar both Hunter and Joe Biden.

In fact, further investigation has found that the magical hard drive Giuliani and Bannon trace their Hunter emails to was manufactured a week after it was supposedly dropped off at a computer repair shop.

To say that the New York Post column was a hit piece would be a severe understatement. To say it was yellow journalism would be incomplete. It reported a debunked lie, using likely forged emails as evidence and the top tier of Trump's personal propaganda team as sources.

It was textbook propaganda.

Twitter prevented distribution of this propaganda on its platform in accordance with its policies against dissemination of hacked documents and the posting of personally identifiable information. Facebook limited its spread because it was so far from the facts that it bore no resemblance to it.

Of course, it was the right move. Those who argue that social media platforms ought to be content neutral and should not be arbiters of truth - I might mention that Facebook's founder is among them - are wrong. They are wrong not only because massive social media platforms should not be content neutral, but also because the platforms have never been so.

Social media platforms are popular because they are addictive, and they are addictive because their advanced algorithms use artificial intelligence to curate information and media the user is likely to find irresistible. The platforms create 'bots' and 'cookies' that follow us around the Internet to enhance the curation capabilities of their algorithms. This often means that these platforms - by design - create highly specialized bubbles around each individual user - or perhaps more accurately, users create highly specialized bubbles around ourselves through our use of these platforms and the Internet in general. In this social media platforms are supercharged clickbait platforms.

This nature of social media - which is designed to be this way - can be harmless, or even useful, if it's helping you discover an endless stream of music you like, or an infinite sequence of funny cat videos you can get lost in. It can help by making it easier to find and notice what you're shopping for, or financial products that may benefit you, and in a range of other ways.

But this very same design makes the spread propaganda and lies easy, and the disseminate fact-based information and real news with the same speed impossibly difficult. We are always more likely to consume material that agrees with our existing worldview, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Most of us are also less likely to rigorously verify the voracity of content that meets our pre-ordained biases.

So it is through our own behavior that we teach the AI curating our own 'feeds' what we are most likely to consume, and the aforementioned bubble is generated. That bubble only allows our biases to be confirmed, and rarely - if ever - questioned. The information people need to know can be mundane and boring, and often lack the sharp edge of tabloid stories. What's more, objective truth in news reporting often clashes with our subjective mindsets.

The result? Information that goes viral on social media platforms is, more often than not, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lies, usually from a right wing viewpoint, although there are plenty such stories permeating the left as well.

The concepts of free press and independent journalism do not exist for the purposes of feeding the public - or segments of the public - what it wants to hear but rather for the noble cause of telling them what they need to know. The American Constitution grants extraordinary freedom from government restrictions to only one industry - the press - for this very reason.

Propaganda has been around longer than the concept of objective news, and it has always spread faster than the truth. But it has never had a supercharged tool to be created and spread by absolutely anyone and everyone with black rectangle in their hands.

Because the virus of propaganda is helped superbly by the very design of the social media platforms, it must also be the social media platforms that bear responsibility to curb the spread of propaganda. Just like we need a national response that includes a 50-state mask mandate to fight the spread of the coronavirus, so we need platform-wide responses that can act as digital masks against the viral spread of propaganda.

There has been some far-reaching responses that are steps in the right direction. Besides for the limits on distribution on this particular false story, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken measures to restrict dangerous conspiracy theories like QAnon via either outright bans or targeting measures.

Still, existing methods of responding on a case-by-case basis, while productive of a laudatory outcome in this particular situation, are inadequate. Social media platforms must to go further and ban the distribution of scientific and political propaganda, disinformation, and lies - as well as the people with the accounts that distribute them - and there should be no exceptions.

Social media platforms have largely created the problem of taking the virus of hate and propaganda mainstream, and it must be they who step in and stunt its spread and reverse the tide.